The New York Times this morning profiles H Mart, the Korean food-centric grocery store chain that has grown from a single store that opened in Woodside, Queens, in 1982, to a 102-store chain with units "across the land, with vast refrigerated cases devoted to kimchi and banchan, the side dishes essential to any Korean meal. In 2020, the company reported $1.5 billion in sales. Later this year, it’s set to open its largest outpost yet, in a space in Orlando, Fla., that is nearly the size of four football fields."
The story makes the point that H Mart creates an environment that allows customers with a Korean heritage to embrace their culture: "For an immigrant, cooking can be a way to anchor yourself in a world suddenly askew. There is no end to the lengths some might go to taste once more that birthday spoonful of Korean miyeok guk, a soup dense with seaweed, slippery on the tongue, or the faintly bitter undertow of beef bile in Laotian laap diip (raw beef salad)."
At then same time, "For many non-Asian customers, H Mart is itself a sneak attack. On their first visit, they’re not actually looking for Asian ingredients; customer data shows that they’re drawn instead to the variety and freshness of more familiar produce, seafood and meat. Only later do they start examining bags of Jolly Pong, a sweet puffed-wheat snack, and red-foil-capped bottles of Yakult — a fermented milk drink that sold out after it appeared in Ms. Han’s best-selling novel-turned-movie 'To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before'."
The Times points out that the family behind H Mart has believed that the stores, while embracing the culture, had to be "clean, modern and easy to navigate, to defy the stereotype of Asian groceries as grimy and run-down." Signs are in both English and Korean.
- KC's View:
At a time when there has been an alarming uptick in anti-Asian racism, it is worth pointing out that in 1982, when H Mart was founded, only about 1.5 percent of the US population as of Asian descent; today, it is close to seven percent.
While the idiots who commit atrocities against their fellow citizens because of imagined slights and conspiracies tend to get the headlines, it always is worth remembering that the family who founded and continue to grow H Mart are much more representative of the American dream.